18 pages 36 minutes read

Judith Ortiz Cofer

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

Fiction | Poem | YA | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica” opens Judith Ortiz Cofer’s 1993 book The Latin Deli. Cofer, a Puerto Rican immigrant who moved to the United States as a child, split her formative years between the two countries. As her work often does, this poem examines the tension between longing for home and life in a new country. Beginning in the 1980s, Cofer’s subject matter and lyrical style impressed American readers and critics alike, who were largely unaccustomed to Latinx literature. Cofer’s contemporary ars poetica, meditating on poetry itself, finds poems in the mouths of patrons who visit a saintly woman’s store and linger there, relishing its many reminders of lives they left behind.

Poet Biography

Judith Ortiz Cofer (1952-2016) was born in a small Puerto Rican town called Hormigueros. The child of a naval officer, she and her family moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1956. Throughout her childhood, Cofer traveled back and forth between the States and Puerto Rico. In 1967, her family moved again to Augusta, Georgia, the state that would eventually add her to its Writers Hall of Fame. Cofer graduated from Augusta College and completed her master’s at Florida Atlantic University.

Cofer’s first book of poetry was Terms of Survival (1987). She followed with more poetry collections and soon added prose to her repertoire, writing widely across genres for the rest of her life. Her 1989 novel The Line of the Sun was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Books that mixed prose and poetry include the award-winning Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood in 1990 and 1993’s The Latin Deli, which opens with “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica.” Cofer received many honors throughout her career, including a fellowship at Oxford University, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation.

Cofer distinguished herself by writing about the Puerto Rican experience—particularly from a female perspective—in a time when few other Latinx writers attracted attention in the American literary scene. She saw her writing, often inspired by her own life, as a portal for mainstream American audiences to understand Puerto Rican culture. In addition to her literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Cofer wrote young adult fiction and two children’s books.

Cofer taught at the University of Georgia in Athens for nearly 30 years. At her retirement in 2013, she was the Regents’ and Franklin Professor of English and Creative Writing. Cofer died of cancer in 2016.

Poem Text

Cofer, Judith Ortiz. “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica.” 2010. University of Georgia Press.


The poetic speaker describes the woman who runs a deli and the products that fill it. The woman first stands behind the “ancient register” (Line 3) decorated with a magnetic Madonna. She sells dried fish and plantains to the Latinx immigrants who shop there. Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans respectively tell the woman about the expensive coffee in America, their longing for home, and the chance for a better life in the United States.

The woman’s customers find “comfort” (Line 18) in their freedom to use Spanish in the store and in her resemblance to their family members. She listens with care to everything they say, even if they only speak the familiar Spanish words they find on food packaging there.

The woman of the Latin deli serves a more expensive “jamón y queso” (Line 30) sandwich than the American grocery store does, although that does not deter patrons. One elderly man comes in to read her his grocery list. Other customers do not say what they want, yet she still discovers which products remind them of their home countries.